[18 February 2010]
Part modern myth and part political biography, Kevin Macdonald’s 2006 film The Last King of Scotland examines the rise and fall of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin through the eyes of his fictional Scottish doctor. Through a kaleidoscopic mix of colorful global pop culture with the brutal depiction of senseless violence in the militaristic government, the dynamics of the monstrous yet charismatic leader’s regime are explored via a perplexed Western perspective that struggles to come to terms with a terrifying reality that it just can’t seem to grasp.
The source material behind the film is the 1998 award-winning novel of the same title by journalist Giles Foden, which is structured as a fictional memoir. This interweaving of fiction and fact is an interesting method of storytelling that works well given the material’s international appeal, as it connects the West and Africa in artistically challenging ways. The screenplay was adapted by Jeremy Brock and acclaimed British playwright Peter Morgan, whose amazing skill with historical dramas contributes to the breadth of the narrative.
After graduating from medical school in 1970 Scotland, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) decides to take a risk with his life and seek adventure abroad by taking up a position in a Ugandan missionary clinic. Coinciding with Garrigan’s arrival into Uganda is the successful coup d’état by General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) which overthrew incumbent President Milton Obote. At this point, Garrigan is a brash young man with an unfortunate penchant for married women, while the charismatic Amin has risen with great support by a Uganda desperate for healthy change.
Their paths cross for the first time when Garrigan treats Amin’s injured hand after a popular rally. Amin admires Garrigan for his honesty and Scottish roots, while Garrigan is impressed by Amin’s friendly demeanor and wide plans for a fair Ugandan government. Amin later invites Garrigan to be his personal physician and to modernize the nation’s health care system, which after some reluctance he grows to accept. This begins a tumultuous friendship between the two as Garrigan becomes an apologist for the brutal regime while Amin’s charisma is contrasted with a paranoid and aggressive persona that is at times frightening.
While brutal and maniacal are hardly words one would use to describe actor Forest Whitaker’s typical roles, the filmmakers really got lucky on this one, because Whitaker dominates in ways that few would have imagined. In an Oscar-winning performance, Whitaker balances Amin’s character with big populist posturing on one hand, and almost a bipolar madness on the other. By immersing himself so deeply into the role, Whitaker has assumed the mindset of a madman with power, and whether in public speeches or in private conversations, he manages it wonderfully.
McAvoy, although obviously overshadowed by Whitaker’s performance, plays a convincing Garrigan whose vices and youthful naiveté come back to harm him. Garrigan represents the liberal Westerner who comes to “help” and ends up exploiting. While millions of Ugandans that he was supposed to treat suffer in poverty, Garrigan drives a Mercedes-Benz, attends parties regularly, and dines with the new aristocrats. His demonstrated attraction to married women is what ultimately leads to his critical realization, when he finds out that he impregnated one of Amin’s neglected wives. It seems that for Garrigan, this was an imperialist aggression that Amin cannot tolerate.
While the politics and pacing of the film move along at a Hollywood speed, it is believable enough so that it doesn’t feel like an overly labored Oliver Stone film. Macdonald rightfuly films in Uganda, providing a realism that helps engage you with the story. Interestingly enough, this was the first Western film to be filmed in Uganda since 1990. Also worth noting in the film are supporting performances by Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington, who contribute to a solid cast of underrated actors with both of their vulnerable roles.
The Blu-ray release of The Last King of Scotland is worth purchasing if only to see the startling imagery in high definition, which helps magnify the culture and visuals of Uganda. The DTS-HD Master Audio is simply amazing, bringing out all the diverse sounds from the score. Bonus features of the disc include seven deleted scenes with commentary by Macdonald, as well as three great featurettes that focus on Forest Whitaker’s commitment to the role, as well as understanding Idi Amin as a complex person in political history.
The Last King of Scotland is a brilliant historical drama, blending fact and fiction into a narrative that is beautiful and at times, terrifying. Whitaker’s lauded performance is something to be studied for years, because it says something about an actor’s ability when the character name causes you to recall the actor’s face and not the person they were based on. Passionately directed, The Last King of Scotland weaves a tragic story of power and seduction, and the unfortunate effects they can have on humanity.